Wednesday, October 10, 2018

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-Tristessa

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-Tristessa

By Book Critic Zack James

To be honest I know about On The Road Jack Kerouac’s epic tale of his generation’s search for something, maybe the truth, maybe just for kicks, for stuff, important stuff that had happened down in the base of society where nobody in authority was looking or some such happening strictly second-hand. His generation’s search looking for a name, found what he, or someone associated with him, maybe the bandit poet Gregory Corso, king of the mean New York streets, mean, very mean indeed in a junkie-hang-out world around Times Square when that place was up to its neck in flea-bit hotels, all-night Joe and Nemo’s and the trail of the “fixer” man on every corner, con men coming out your ass too, called the “beat” generation. (Yes,  I know that the actual term “beat” was first used by Kerouac writer friend John Clemmon Holmes in an article in some arcane journal but the “feel” had to have come from a less academic source so I will crown the bandit prince Corso as genesis)
Beat, beat of the jazzed up drum line backing some sax player searching for the high white note, what somebody told me, maybe my oldest brother Alex who was washed clean in the Summer of Love, 1967 but must have known the edges of Jack’s time since he was in high school when real beat exploded on the scene in Jack-filled 1957, they called “blowing to the China seas” out in West Coast jazz and blues circles, that high white note he heard achieved one skinny night by famed sax man Sonny Johns, dead beat, run out on money, women, life, leaving, and this is important no forwarding address for the desolate repo man to hang onto, dread beat, nine to five, 24/7/365 that you will get caught back up in the spire wind up like your freaking staid, stay at home parents, beaten down, ground down like dust puffed away just for being, hell, let’s just call it being, beatified beat like saintly and all Jack’s kid stuff high holy Catholic incense and a story goes with it about a young man caught up in a dream, like there were not ten thousand other religions in the world to feast on- you can take your pick of the meanings, beat time meanings. Hell, join the club they all did, the guys, and it was mostly guys who hung out on the poet princely mean streets of New York, Chi town, Mecca beckoning North Beach in Frisco town cadging twenty-five cents a night flea-bag sleeps (and the fleas were real no time for metaphor down in the bowels where the cowboy junkies drowse in endless sleeps, raggedy winos toothless suck dry the dregs and hipster con men prey on whoever floats down), half stirred left on corner diners’ coffees and groundling cigarette stubs when the Bull Durham ran out).

I was too young to have had anything but a vague passing reference to the thing, to that “beat” thing since I was probably just pulling out of diapers then, maybe a shade bit older but not much. I got my fill, my brim fill later through my oldest brother Alex. Alex, and his crowd, more about that in a minute, but even he was only washed clean by the “beat” experiment at a very low level, mostly through reading the book (need I say the book was On The Road) and having his mandatory two years of living on the road around the time of the Summer of Love, 1967 an event whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year as well and so very appropriate to mention since there were a million threads, fibers, connections between “beat” and “hippie” despite dour grandpa Jack’s attempts to trash those connection when the acolytes and bandit hangers-on  came calling looking for the “word.” So even Alex and his crowd were really too young to have been washed by the beat wave that crashed the continent toward the end of the 1950s on the wings of Allan Ginsburg’s Howl and Jack’s travel book of a different kind (not found on the AAA, Traveler’s Aid, Youth Hostel brochure circuit if you please although Jack and the crowd, my brother and his crowd later would use such services when up against it in let’s say a place like Winnemucca in the Nevadas or Neola in the heartlands).
Literary stuff for sure but the kind of stuff that moves generations, or I like to think the best parts of those cohorts. These were the creation documents the latter of which would drive Alex west before he finally settled down to his career life as a high-road lawyer (and to my sorrow and anger never looked back which has caused more riffs and bad words than I want to yell about here).             

Of course anytime you talk about books and poetry and then add my brother’s Alex name into the mix that automatically brings up memories of another name, the name of the late Peter Paul Markin. Markin, for whom Alex and the rest of the North Adamsville corner boys, Frankie, Jack, Jimmy, Si, Josh (he a separate story from up in Olde Saco, Maine and so only an honorary corner boy after hitching up with the Scribe out on a Russian Hill dope-filled park), Bart, and a few others still alive recently had me put together a tribute book for in connection with that Summer of Love, 1967, their birthright event, just mentioned.  Markin was the vanguard guy, the volunteer odd-ball unkempt mad monk seeker, what did Jack call his generation’s such, oh yeah, holy goofs,   who got several of them off their asses and out to the West Coast to see what there was to see. To see some stuff that Markin had been speaking of for a number of years before 1967 (and which nobody in the crowd paid any attention to, or dismissed out of hand, what they called “could give a rat’s ass” about in the local jargon which I also inherited in those cold, hungry bleak 1950s cultural days in America) and which can be indirectly attributed to the activities of Jack, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, that aforementioned bandit poet who ran wild on the mean streets among the hustlers, conmen and whores of the major towns of the continent, William Burroughs, the Harvard-trained junkie  and a bunch of other guys who took a very different route for our parents who were of the same generation as them but of a very different world.

But it was above all Jack’s book, Jack’s travel adventure book which had caused a big splash in 1957(after an incredible publishing travail since the story line actually related to events in the late 1940s and which would cause Jack no end of trauma when the kids showed up at his door looking to hitch a ride on the motherlode star, and had ripple effects into the early 1960s and even now certain “hip” kids acknowledge the power of attraction that book had for their own developments, especially that living simple, fast and hard part). Made the young, some of them anyway, like I say I think the best part, have to spend some time thinking through the path of life ahead by hitting the vagrant dusty sweaty road. Maybe not hitchhiking, maybe not going high speed high through the ocean, plains, mountain, desert night but staying unsettled for a while anyway.    

Like I said above Alex was out on the road two years and other guys, other corner boys for whatever else you wanted to call them that was their niche back in those days and were recognized as such in the town not always to their benefit, from a few months to a few years. Markin started first back in the spring of 1967 but was interrupted by his fateful induction into the Army and service, if you can call it that, in Vietnam and then several more years upon his return before his untimely and semi-tragic end down some dusty Jack-strewn road in Mexico cocaine deal blues. With maybe this difference from today’s young who are seeking alternative roads away from what is frankly bourgeois society and was when Jack wrote although nobody except commies and pinkos called it that for fear of being tarred with those brushes. Alex, Frankie Riley the acknowledged leader, Jack Callahan and the rest, Markin included, were strictly “from hunger” working class kids who when they hung around Tonio Pizza Parlor were as likely to be thinking up ways to grab money fast any way they could or of getting into some   hot chick’s pants any way they could as anything else. Down at the base of society when you don’t have enough of life’s goods or have to struggle too much to get even that little bit “from hunger” takes a big toll on your life. I can testify to that part because Alex was not the only one in the James family to go toe to toe with the law back then when the coppers were just waiting for corner boy capers to explode nay Friday or Saturday night, it was a close thing for all us boys as it had been with Jack when all is said and done. But back then dough and sex after all was what was what for corner boys, maybe now too although you don’t see many guys hanging on forlorn Friday night corners anymore.

What made this tribe different, the Tonio Pizza Parlor corner boys, was mad monk Markin. Markin called by Frankie Riley “Scribe” from the time he came to North Adamsville from across town in junior high school and that stuck all through high school. The name stuck because although Markin was as larcenous and lovesick as the rest of them he was also crazy for books and poetry. Christ according to Alex, Markin was the guy who planned most of the “midnight creeps” they called then. Although nobody in their right minds would have the inept Markin actually execute the plan. That was for smooth as silk Frankie now also like Alex a high-road lawyer to lead. That operational sense was why Frankie was the leader then (and maybe why he was a locally famous lawyer later who you definitely did not want to be on the other side against him). Markin was also the guy who all the girls for some strange reason would confide in and thus was the source of intelligence about who was who in the social pecking order, in other words, who was available, sexually or otherwise. That sexually much more important than otherwise. See Markin always had about ten billion facts running around his head in case anybody, boy or girl, asked him about anything so he was ready to do battle, for or against take your pick.

The books and the poetry is where Jack Kerouac and On The Road come into the corner boy life of the Tonio’s Pizza Parlor life. Markin was something like an antennae for anything that seemed like it might help create a jailbreak, help them get out from under. Later he would be the guy who introduced some of the guys to folk music when that was a big thing. (Alex never bought into that genre, still doesn’t, despite Markin’s desperate pleas for him to check it out. Hated whinny Bob Dylan above all else.) Others too like Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsburg and his wooly homo poem Howl from 1956 which Markin would read sections out loud from on lowdown dough-less, girl-less Friday nights. And drive the strictly hetero guys crazy when he insisted that they read the poem, read what he called a new breeze was coming down the road. They could, using that term from the times again, have given a rat’s ass about some fucking homo faggot poem from some whacko Jewish guy who belonged in a mental hospital. (That is a direct quote from Frankie Riley at the time via my brother Alex’s memory bank.)

Markin flipped out when he found out that Kerouac had grown up in Lowell, a working class town very much like North Adamsville, and that he had broken out of the mold that had been set for him and gave the world some grand literature and something to spark the imagination of guys down at the base of society like his crowd with little chance of grabbing the brass ring. So Markin force-marched the crowd to read the book, especially putting pressure on my brother who was his closest friend then. Alex read it, read it several times and left the dog- eared copy around which I picked up one day when I was having one of my high school summertime blues. Read it through without stopping almost like Jack wrote the final version of the thing on a damn newspaper scroll in about three weeks. So it was through the Scribe via Alex that I got the Kerouac bug. And now on the 60th anniversary I am passing on the bug to you.          

Book Review

Tristessa, Jack Kerouac, Avon Press, New York, 1960 

…sure she was a whore, a small buxom brown-skinned with dancing eyes mex whore with nice sex hips, sex thighs and sex legs, with the blood of about six civilizations, mex, gringo, atzec, spain, carib, injun who knows what else got mixed in, maybe more, all mixed together, but a whore nevertheless, she never said otherwise, and he, Jack Deval, never believed otherwise, and that was her attraction, that and her ability to drive him up a wall with her little bag of whore tricks passed down from older sisters, and who knows maybe going back to some Eve whore bag. Still he dug her, dug her fire, dug her desire, often expressed, to be the best whore in Mexico (expressed in a desire to graduate to some big Mexico City bordello and show the gringos that flocked to those establishments what a mex whore could do, and not do, if he was generous enough, and to give each man she serviced not what he wanted, but what he needed). She studied sex books and sexy literature, some of it kind of high-brow, and not all only modern either, for a while in order to prep herself for the move up.

Yah, he dug, her, her and even, for a while, her sister habit that was keeping her in Sonora and away from Mexico City mex whore dreams (and around him as long as he dug her). He dug too, that while she was a whore, she had something else, something white, pure white, saving white, in that fellahin dusty Sonora world not saint, not church saint (although she confessed to him that she liked to do her anointed work in church sometimes and then confess to a priest right after thus saving steps, time, and the hypocrisy of staring old peasant women eyes. Sometimes she could hear the priest’s breathe quicken and she would add a couple of extra details, usually how she took it in her mouth or up her bum, to get him going even more to cut down on the penance.), when after making love, or after she met sister (and he bonged the weed or hash pipe) they talked about dreams, about the other world (not heaven or hell but some state where things were cool, cool when all the craziness of the world passed them by) 

Her name, her whore name? Hope, you know but in mex hope. Her real name, her sanctified name, Happy but in mex happy. Where did they meet? Where the hell do you think they met, in church ? Nah, not him , although the thought turned him on sometimes, he could never get up the nerve to break with his boyhood awe of the incense, the wine (he had been an altar boy),the high holy day choir, the plainsong of the church, the search for meaning in this wicked old world  that he still craved and was trying to get a handle on down in the fellahin Sonora nights. They met in the bar at the Durango Hotel when he blew into town from Juarez , she, off duty just then, sized him up as a long gone daddy from Estados Unidos, maybe had some dough, or some wisdom (at least that is what she said later, although that could have been a con, she was always conning him and everybody that she knew, except her pimp, Felipe, who had given her a few too many welts to con), came over and offered to buy him a drink, he said scotch, she said okay and what else. That night she had on her tight dress that showed all the boys what she had without showing them all she had, the one that was split down one side so that all those hungry boys could see a little silky brown thigh and imagine, well, just imagine whatever guys imagine when they see that much skin, and inflame that much desire.

Before long they were talking the spiritual talk that he mentioned before and she told him, in the same tone she would use if she were a librarian, that she was a whore (she didn’t go into the details of her expected career path that night), but that she was off the clock and kind of man hungry, and he looking kind of fellaheen beat, beatified beat, gringo beat, and not some texas cowboy beat that usually came into the Durango, or hell no, some mex fellaheen beat that was all around her, drew her eye. They finished their drinks and hustled off to her room (her own room, not her whore room a couple of streets over, that would come later), a room in the pobre mex part of town, all crazy and million people, kin, not kin, ninos, hermanos, whatever, and some barnyard animals floating around the lobby of the building. She said not a word, nor did he, but both as if in a trance blazed through the craziness, their first mex adventure. 

As they climbed the stairs to her third floor room she stopped on the second floor, knocked on the door, and an old geezer beat gringo daddy, later he would be introduced as Sunshine Sam, came to the door. Nothing was said but Sam went away and came back a couple of minutes later with small wrapped package and some cigarettes that had the distinct smell of weed. Okay, it was going to be that kind of party. That night was the first time in his presence where she met sister, although it would not be the last, not by a long shot. And he smoked that righteous mex gold weed. 

What did Jack say she said before, oh yah, she didn’t care about what a man wanted but what he needed. That night, sister high which seemed counter-intuitive to him from what he had seen in ‘Frisco and the Village where those sister adapts tended to go coma-like, she displayed all her arts, or as much as he could handle before crying no mas early the next morning. She just smiled and started playing with herself with a little sex toy she took out of her bureau drawer. After she aroused herself and let out an immense murmur she too cried no mas and they both fell asleep, both sweaty in the mex night. Next day she resolved and he put up no argument that he would move in, do his writing there and they would talk, world talk, have sex, world sex, and let the craziness of dusty mex streets, the world craziness, float past. 

Of course like all thing, all Jack Deval things, the routine of mex living, mex whore living, the thing could not, would not, last forever, or even six months.Hope was getting deeper in the sister trenches, making less dough since her pimp was taking a bigger cut sensing maybe that her days as a meal ticket were getting shorter and since she had lost her place at the Durango pick-up and was working the desperado streets against some just off the farm peasant whores, and was frankly less sexy, and less interested in sex as they progressed. Jack, for his part, came to recognize that his secular beat saint program was not going to work, not compared to what Sunshine Sam had to offer. One night, one rainy night, mud puddles forming in the dirt-encrusted streets he walked down those three flights of stairs while Happy was out working a texas cowboy trick, walked toward the bus station and headed for El Paso, and world sorrows. He never did hear from other guys who headed to Sonora later what happened to her (although he could guess) but he always remembered those nights when she gave him what he needed, and he would tip his fingers to his hatless head and whisper her name, happy. 

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